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RIP Steve Stavros: Torontonian Icon

The Tesseract

TRIBE Member
Toronto Icon Steve Stavros, former Leafs owner, and Grocery Mogul has passed on. I met Mr. Stavros a few years ago, when my Cousin married his granddaughter. My memories of him, like so many others, was of an extremely genial man. If anything, Toronto has lost a true legend this week.

RIP Mr. Knob hill farms

Stavro embodied local sports
Leafs ex-owner, 78, dreamed, lived big
`Honest Grocer' dies of heart attack


When it came to sports, Steve Stavro possessed a keen sense of anticipation and optimism. It's a trait common to those involved in horse racing; some say it keeps them young. There's always another crop of 2-year-olds with promise coming, always a barn full of 3-year-olds that might be good enough to make a man dream the big dreams.

Stavro was better known — regrettably famous and almost infamous — for owning the Maple Leafs for a contentious decade or so and he and the fans in this city dreamed the big dreams there, too. They went unmet on his watch, although that certainly didn't make him unique.

Many aspects of his life did, though, a life that ended Sunday, at age 78, from a heart attack, at his large and imposing home above the 18th fairway at Rosedale Golf Club.

Stavro was a guy who grew up the hard way. Worked hard. Got up early in the morning and kept his hands on his businesses. Understood and appreciated the handshake and the back-room deal. Had a reverence for, if not a fixation on, Alexander The Great, as some Macedonian-born persons did (and do). For all the in-person joking you could do with the guy referred to here as the Honest Grocer, his angriest reaction, in our dealings, came when asked if he'd seen the story that historians had uncovered evidence suggesting Alexander The Great was a little light in the sandals. The Grocer definitely didn't want to go there.

Now, he'll spend eternity beneath an image of his hero; his recently finished grave monument in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, one he was proudly describing to friends at a breakfast just this past Saturday morning, has a 22-foot-tall statue of Alexander The Great on horseback atop the mausoleum. There are Maple Leafs, Raptors, Air Canada Centre, horse racing and soccer motifs, as well as four guardian lions and they definitely aren't girl lions. He has the bases covered.

Stavro was a people person all the way, knew the names of the guys who unloaded the trucks and stocked the shelves. He also had Pavarotti over to his house one night after a concert at Maple Leaf Gardens to meet and even sing a song or two for 100 swells at $1,000 a plate — this was when $1,000 was a lot of money — with all the money going to Villa Columbo. So he knew which fork to use, like he knew his way around the Turf Club at Woodbine, although his heart, with its humble beginnings, was on the backstretch.

When it came to sports, he was an owner in the old-fashioned sense of the word, which means he was different from the mere investors and money lenders who, 3 1/2 years ago, squeezed him out of the corporate picture that now has become Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.

He thought players made too much money — he was and is not alone in this regard — and rejected the chance to add Wayne Gretzky late in his career as being too expensive. He fought against other big-money contracts, too, one of the reasons he was chased out. He was old-fashioned in other ways, gruff and profane being two of them. He didn't know how to begin to deal with the Maple Leaf Gardens pedophilia scandal, a messy affair he inherited, along with the hockey team, and his regime's insensitive behaviour was itself scandalous to many.

He feuded with his cousins, the Bitoves, who owned the basketball team at the time. Again, that did not make him unique.

Stavro liked money, surely, and resisted overspending whenever possible. The means by which he took control of the Maple Leafs came into serious question. He acted as buyer and seller as executor of Harold Ballard's estate and when the charities to which Ballard left the team, led by a few sharp stockholders, protested the short price involved, the securities people saw their side of things. Stavro needed to come up with something like $51 million to make the pot square and thereafter became financially vulnerable to the takeover that ultimately came in 2003.

This short-changing of the charities was at odds with his track record for writing cheques for good causes. He did plenty of that; every year, when this space collected cash for kids at Christmas in the name of Jim Proudfoot, a letter and a $1,000 cheque arrived from the Steve and Sally Stavro Foundation. He was, others would testify, an easy mark for the right reasons.

There were other questions, though. His Knob Hills Farms, a vast grocery empire he built through hard work and handshakes, couldn't keep pace with modern retail practices and went under, yet he ended up controlling a prime chunk of city-owned waterfront land under curious circumstances. It was the land where the athlete's village would have been had Toronto won the 2008 Olympics. He'd have made a fortune.

Because he had been such a noticeable part of the Toronto sporting scene for a few decades — his presence not unlike that, in a different realm, of a Johnny Lombardi — he remained a fixture at the racetrack and the dinners where the sporting crowd gathers, even after his Maple Leaf proprietorship was over.

Our last conversation, at last November's Canadian Sports Hall of Fame induction dinner, started about his thoroughbreds. We discussed a 3-year-old of his that had looked, but not run, the part last year and he was bubbling about his 2-year-olds (now 3-year-olds) and their futures. He also wondered how the people who run MLSE could sleep at night, having abandoned St. John's, Nfld., with their top farm club.

"Nicest people in the world, those people in Newfoundland, and we had a good deal with them. Now we're just (bleeping) them," he said and he meant it. He said he was ashamed of MLSE. This put him ahead of the curve again.

He also didn't understand what MLSE was thinking by trying pro soccer again, because Stavro was nothing if not persistent when it came to soccer. He often put his own money — not taxpayers' — where his heart was, bankrolling several stabs at making pro soccer work in this town, from the Continental Soccer League to the International SL, the Eastern Canada Professional SL, the United Soccer Association and the North American SL. Soccer responded, at least by naming him to its Canadian hall of fame last year as a builder.

He had his enemies — who doesn't? — but he made himself a lot of friends in soccer, horse racing, junior hockey, around the Leafs. One of a kind? No question. No one else like him in this town.
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